Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVII No. 3, May 16-31, 2017
Venkatraman at his desk in his library
The Tamil word thuru-thuru…energy in action and thought… is the word which best describes S. Venkatraman. And this is one 93-year-old whose matchless energy and infectious enthusiasm can floor even a teenager!
‘Super busy’ in his working life. And he has been working “a lot more vigorously” in the last ten years. Since 2010, he has self-published four well-researched volumes of Indian Railway history and a fifth is to come out soon. In 2010, he published Indian Railways at a Glance, in 2014 came his magnum opus, Indian Railways: The Beginning up to 1900, then The Madras Railway from 1849, followed by the South Mahratta Railway 1888 to 1908. He is currently working on the Pondicherry Railway!! Neither advancing years nor his limited personal resources have unsettled him at any point.
Joining the Railways as a materials manager (stores) in Hubli, he retired in 1982 as a stores officer at Diesel Loco Works in Varanasi. He began to write his first book “more than three decades after retiring”. From 1982, he has used his spare time to travel, to collect details and take pictures of railway stations and trains throughout India. As one of the oldest members of the Indian Railways Fan Club Association, accessing Indian Railways’ archives has meant crisscrossing the country, mostly shuttling between Chennai and Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Bhubaneswar, “whenever there is a need to find the material for the books” and “for the sheer joy I get from doing something that is creative and also connected to the Railways”!
Growing older just means he is “more vigilant, stimulated and excited by ideas”! “I started by wanting to unearth something special on Indian Railways, when I found no one had written of its origins. Every little bit of information can be a potential nugget of history. How it began, with how many people, how did it develop, what details of the broad gauge, metre gauge. So exciting a journey it has been! In each of the 16 railway areas, I have delved deep. Did you know the designations of different wagons can actually tell you of the products they carry… coal, petrol, etc? Even each Coach Number can be deciphered, according to its digits,” he says excitedly.
“My vision is to now record in detail how varied foreign forces gained entry through the railways. When I write about the British connections with the railways starting from 1856 in Thane, I want to record how the Portuguese came to Daman and, of course, the Dupleix connection with Pondicherry. It’s a race against time!”
His laborious research on this love of his life was inspired by his late wife, Lalitha, who embarked on, and completed, her Ph.D. in her 40s!
Venkatraman used to occasionally contribute articles to the journal Rail Business. Somewhere along the line he felt “why not compile this information into books on Railway history?” His rummaging through dusty tomes in search of ‘railway vignettes’ even led him to IRFCA, the Indian Railways Fans’ Club of America.
Hailed as “a rare repository of knowledge of Railway Heritage, a veritable treasure house and a living Wikipedia on the subject,” this Railway aficionado’s keen eye for detail is constantly evident. ‘Guruji’ to his innumerable admirers in the railways, his advancing years have not diminished his infectious enthusiasm for the railways. His books “appeal not only to railway fans but also to scholars and historians,”remarked former General Manager, Southern Railways, V. Anand.
Venkatraman talks of his usual routine. “Write, Write, Write… with small breaks for light nourishment”! Surrounded by books and railway history material, of all sizes and shapes, he confesses, “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night to jot down ideas. I handle all the copying and book work, myself, usually during my post-lunch hours, when I try and also pick up some vegetables for my daughter-in-law’s kitchen! Once I return, after that brief contact with the community in my area, I’m back to my job of compiling the history of the Indian Railways, and what a magnificent history it has been. My work may be considered challenging by others but I feel great to be able to do such work!”
Keeping fit means to him, “Eat less, drink more fluids.” “When you eat more, all the extra stuff will only deposit in various organs within your system and cause you trouble,”he smiles mischievously. He then muses, “Why do senior citizens spend most of their time discussing when the next pay commission is, or the interest that has accrued on their bank FDs? They need to realise that for their own sakes, it is important to find a reason to give back to society in some way. And the reasons are many, and all around us. It will give you much to do, and keep you in good mental and physical health!” He then adds, “on Sundays I spend some time in the temple, morning and evening. All other ‘work days’, are still very busy.”
Cricket and music are Venkatraman’s other passions! “I used to play lots of cricket in high school and nothing can take me away from the TV during important matches. I’m waiting to watch Dhoni and Kohli in IPL action soon!” his eyes twinkle delightfully. “The music season in Chennai is special too… I love listening to the classics of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bagavathar, Musiri Subramania Iyer or K.B. Sundarambal. And Chittur Subramania Pillai is my all-time favourite!”
Venkatraman, concluding our meeting, says, “The nineties have just made me even more confident and I’m always thinking ‘What next?’! And then he says, “Venkatraman now 93”; his signature sign-off in his lightning quick responses to all mails!